Making Friends with Fiddly Fiorature

Over the past couple of weeks I have had a few requests for advice on how to handle the flurries of little notes we find in the music of Chopin. I am republishing a post I wrote back in 2013 – I hope it helps! When you’ve been teaching the piano for as long as I have, there are certain problems that are universal. It might be a particular spot in a particular piece that will always need to be brought up, or it might be a concept – such as how to manage the fioratura in the music of Chopin. Before we go any further, let me explain what this term means. Taken from “fior”, which means “flower” in Italian, fioratura refers to the flowery, embellished vocal line within an aria. Chopin was a diehard fan of the bel canto tradition, and we find its influence throughout his music. Some of these passages look extremely scary, for example the coda of the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne: The first thing to realise here is that Chopin did not intend the notation of his fiorature to be mathematically precise. The whole point is for them to sound free, improvisatory and personal. In my lessons with Ann Schein on Chopin’s Second Concerto, I was instructed to start the fiorature fast and take time at the end of the groups. Since Ann was one of only two students of Artur Rubinstein – no slouch when it came to the interpretation of Chopin – this has always been good enough for me. Because the notation is free, I feel we should retain a sense of freedom and even whimsy about how we play our fiorature, being unconstrained by the mathematics […]

An Arpeggio Practice Plan

If you’re preparing your scales and arpeggios for an exam, or if you want to include some as part of your warm-up routine or technical regime, it is a good idea to be creative about how you’re going to tackle them day by day. Recently, I gave a practice plan for scales so I thought I would also give you a possible way to organise your arpeggio practice. Assuming you already know your arpeggios in all the inversions, and have overcome the basic technical difficulties, use this plan as a springboard for further creative ideas. Arpeggio Bouquet This is a useful process for self-testing, and it also helps develop mental flexibility and concentration. From a given note, generate as many different arpeggios as possible that use that note, and play all on one continuous loop without stops (the last note of each arpeggio becomes the first note of the next). For example, if we choose the note C, our loop will consist of the following different arpeggios (aim to change only one note at a time where possible, this won’t work as neatly as you go through the dominant 7ths). I suggest changing the note each day. Keep an eagle eye on fingerings: C major, root position C minor, root position A flat major, first inversion F minor, second inversion F major, second inversion A minor, first inversion Dominant 7th, key of F, root position Dominant 7th, key of D flat, first inversion Dominant 7th, key of B flat, second inversion Dominant 7th, key of G, third inversion Diminished 7th on C   Be creative with how you do this – you might vary the dynamics between one arpeggio and the next, play some half or […]

Don’t Play!

We tend to think of sitting at the piano and practising totally in terms of making sounds. If we’re not moving our fingers up and down, we’re not really practising, right? Following on from last week’s post on performing, I mentioned in passing the need to focus our full attention before we start to play, and to blank out the audience as much as possible. This is true whether we are performing for a teacher, an examiner or an audience – or even just for ourselves. We always need to take a few moments to prepare ourselves, to frame our performance with meaningful silence. I have found many people in such a hurry to play that they omit this crucial step. So what goes on during this time of silence, exactly? We need to conjure up the sounds, atmosphere and the feeling of the music we are about to engage with. We might hear the opening in our inner ear, imagining the tempo and the energy of the piece. We might find our tempo from some place other than the start – perhaps a bar or two later in the piece where the tempo feels inevitably right. When I play Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, I find my tempo not from the theme itself but from the first variation. I imagine the semiquaver movement in the first variation, and when I play the theme I have a better sense of how I want it to move. The theme is a slightly more static version of the tempo, by the time I reach Variation 1 the semiquavers give the music a forward flow. I keep my hands in my lap until the last moment, approaching the keyboard in […]

Spring Cleaning a Repertoire Piece

Do you have a favourite piece you just love to play, but end up feeling disappointed that you’re just not doing the piece (or yourself) justice each time you drag it off the shelf? If you learned it thoroughly from the start, remember with anything we play we can’t just put a cork in the bottle and expect the genie to emerge fit and healthy after the passage of time. Some of the great pianists have described the process of relearning, restudying or resurrecting works that they may not have played for a while but there is no pianist worth his or her salt who does not labour in the practice room. Shura Cherkassky described his practising thus: I practise by the clock, for me this is the only way. Four hours a day. If I wasn’t absolutely rigid about the whole thing I’d go to pieces. You need iron discipline – sheer will power. So many great talents disappear about a short while because they get conceited and don’t work properly anymore. You have to work all the time. (From an interview with Stephen Hough, 1991) I would like to propose a challenge. Take a piece you would really like to get on top of, but have never felt totally comfortable with – probably something you have never really done the basic groundwork with. Decide on a timeframe that is meaningful and realistic to you and set aside a certain amount of time daily to attend to this task. It might be a week, it might be a month. You are about to undertake a commitment to a process, the end result of which will be palpable and well worth the effort. Before embarking on this, […]

By |February 14th, 2014|Practising|7 Comments

“Sorry, I haven’t done as much practice as I would like this week…”

How often we piano teachers hear this comment! “Sorry, I haven’t done as much practice as I would like this week.” It has to rank with the exclamation “But I can play it perfectly well at home” as one of the perennials. I always smile inside when I hear this, because it is intended well and actually we’ve all been there. Learning a piece is a process, rather like an investment. It might take several weeks where you don’t feel much progress then suddenly something changes and it feels like the penny has dropped. It is easy to get frustrated and demotivated during the gestation period. I always remind students that not every lesson has to be a performance – during this stage there is much more value in chipping away at the piece together, side by side, rather than attempting to play it through. Wouldn’t it be great if our results at the piano were in direct proportion to the amount of time spent? If practising were an exact science and we were machines, perhaps we could guarantee the perfect performance. I wonder how often any of us can walk onto the concert platform or into the examination room feeling totally confident that we have done enough practice, that we have covered all our bases. There is always that nagging feeling we could have done more – all we need is a few more days and we’d be fine. Time always seems to be at a premium. There are so many demands on our time, and there never seem to be enough hours in the day to fit in as much practice as we want. I can say this, though, without any doubt: if we […]

But I Can Play It Perfectly Well At Home!

Of all the comments students make in lessons, the assertion that they can play it perfectly well at home has to be among the most common. I would guess that this is probably universal, and even though I don’t think the statement is a lie I am not sure I always buy it. I think what they mean is there was nobody at home to judge, or that stopping somewhere in the piece, making a sly correction and restarting were either not noticed even by the players themselves or if they were, these errors had no obvious consequences. Surely the whole point is the (vast) difference between playing in the comforts of your living room, and the stresses and strains of performance where other people are listening. What felt easy and natural when we were alone suddenly becomes treacherous and untrustworthy when in the presence of others. And it doesn’t seem to matter much whether the audience is knowledgable about music or not. There is a virtual reality game called Walk the Plank. In reality you simply walk across a plank placed flat on the floor, in virtual reality you walk the plank over a vast cityscape. The experience is made to feel real by the headset that provides the experience of reality – even though the mind knows you are perfectly safe and at ground level, the brain and body is tricked and terror ensues. When we perform, we need to be responding on many different levels – emotionally, physically, even viscerally. We need to get into character and fully live the music on stage, there is room for spontaneity and magic here! Heaven forbid that when onstage, we are thinking about what notes […]

By |February 23rd, 2013|Teaching|7 Comments

Snakes And Ladders

In life, we repeat certain ways of doing things until they become habits – until we become unconscious of them and do them without thinking (and without the need to think about them). It is said that good habits are hard to form and yet easy to break, while bad habits are easy to form and yet hard to break. How true! CONSCIOUSNESS If you want to break a habit, you first need to be conscious of it. I had a student who was unaware that when she wanted to play expressively, she raised her right shoulder. Not the left shoulder, which behaved quite normally, but only the right one. When I asked her if she was aware of this fact, she said she wasn’t. We discussed how her raised shoulder could possibly be of benefit, and we both agreed that this is not only a futile gesture but one that positively impedes looseness and freedom in the upper arm and shoulder – essential ingredients in skillful piano playing. I gave her an exercise to develop mobility in the shoulder, but for the first week I asked her to put a mirror on the music desk of her piano and just observe her posture, without trying to do anything to change it.  In each lesson thereafter, I would simply tap her right shoulder very lightly when the upward movement recurred and after a few weeks, she had reconditioned herself not to raise her shoulder at all. A particularly bad habit, and an extremely debilitating one for fluency in playing, is the tendency to stutter at the piano. By this I mean you reach a place in the score, land on something erroneous, jab at the […]

By |August 29th, 2012|Teaching|0 Comments

Piano Graffiti

Recently I ordered a new item of furniture, and when it arrived the delivery man plonked his clipboard onto my piano and there began to do his paperwork. This gesture made me quite uncomfortable, not only because the piano is my workspace and therefore personal, but also because I like to think of it as some sort of altar where certain things simply don’t belong. Those who think nothing of putting stuff on their piano are perhaps less likely to be concerned with the sounds that come out of it. One of the things that irritates the HECK out of me is when students doodle at the piano during a lesson. My regular students know I will not tolerate this at all. If this happens – horror of horrors – while I am speaking, I will immediately stop until they have finished. “What was that?”, I might even ask. Actually, I sometimes wonder if they are even conscious they are doing it at all. They are probably peppering their daily practice with this brainless doodling, which makes it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, namely what is meaningless scribble and what is worthy of refinement, repetition and retention. It’s the mindless drivel that gets my goat. It is hard to imagine a painter placing a brand new canvas on the easel at the start of a working day only to begin by scribbling in a corner until inspiration strikes. The spirit of craftsmanship that I have written about before needs to be summoned up every time we start our work at the piano. We need to be conscious of every sound we make and why, and to allow silences and pauses for thought and […]

A Sound Investment

In a recent post, I suggested that performing (or playing through), can be compared to spending, whereas practising has its parallels with investing. Successful people in the business world will have struck a healthy balance between the two: too much of one and not enough of the other is a formula that can’t work, either way round. The pianist will constantly need to be juggling the act of playing through pieces (either to themselves or an audience) with practising, using the tools and processes I have been outlining in this blog. The trial by fire comes when you remove yourself from your cosy practice room and play for others. I have probably told this anecdote before, about one of Neuhaus’ students who, after an unsatisfactory performance in a lesson, declared it had gone perfectly well at home. “Well, my dear, then I suggest you go home and play it” was his retort. The romantic idea that concert pianists don’t have to practise, that the muse is forever on tap, is of course complete twaddle. Artists at the peak of their profession will have dedicated their lives to this activity and will have made numerous extremely costly sacrifices. Regular and routine practising is an absolute, a priority above all others. And the job will occupy their waking hours as much as that of any top executive. I am often asked how much time should be spent practising, and while this is a question that does need to be addressed, it is often not possible to say specifically. It depends SO much on the individual – their concentration span, what they are working towards, and their powers of organisation. One can spend hours at the piano and […]